Category 3 Hurricane Ian Makes Landfall Over Western Cuba 

Hurricane Ian has made landfall over western Cuba just hours after evolving as a major hurricane.   

Forecasters at the Miami-based National Hurricane Center say Ian is carrying maximum sustained winds of 205 kilometers an hour, making it a Category 3 storm on the center’s five-level scale that measures a storm’s maximum sustained wind speed and destructive potential. 

The storm is just 10 kilometers south of the province of Pinar del Rio, traveling at a speed of 19 kilometers an hour. Officials in Pinar del Rio evacuated tens of thousands of residents ahead of Ian’s arrival and took steps to protect its vital tobacco crops and its related infrastructure.  

The NHC says Ian will remain a major hurricane as it travels over the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday. It is expected to reach the western Gulf Coast of the southern U.S. state of Florida as early as Wednesday and take a direct path towards the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg.  The area has not sustained a direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921. 

Forecasters have issued hurricane, tropical storm and storm surge warnings and watches for parts of western Cuba and Florida that are in the current path of Hurricane Ian. The storm is expected to produce between 15 to 25 centimeters of rainfall in western Cuba, with the Florida Keys expected to receive 10 to 15 centimeters and central west Florida to get between 15 to 30 centimeters of rainfall. 

Parts of western Cuba are also expected to experience life-threatening storm surges, flash flooding and possible mudslides Tuesday, as well as devastating wind damage.  The NHC says parts of Florida’s western coast could see storm surges between 60 to 304 centimeters thanks to Hurricane Ian.   

U.S. President Joe Biden has issued an emergency declaration for Florida, authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster-relief efforts and provide more federal funding. Authorities have issued evacuation orders for hundreds of thousands of residents along Florida’s Gulf Coast. The potential devastation from Ian has even prompted officials with the U.S. space agency NASA to roll its massive Artemis 1 moon rocket and Orion space capsule from its launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center — located on Florida’s eastern coast — back to the Vehicle Assembly Building, further delaying its planned test flight.   

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.  

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NASA Spacecraft Crashes Into Asteroid in Defense Test

A NASA spacecraft rammed an asteroid at blistering speed Monday in an unprecedented dress rehearsal for the day a killer rock menaces Earth.

The galactic slam occurred at a harmless asteroid 9.6 million kilometers away, with the spacecraft named Dart plowing into the space rock at 22,500 kph. Scientists expected the impact to carve out a crater, hurl streams of rocks and dirt into space and, most importantly, alter the asteroid’s orbit.

“We have impact!” Mission Control’s Elena Adams announced, jumping up and down and thrusting her arms skyward.

Telescopes around the world and in space aimed at the same point in the sky to capture the spectacle. Though the impact was immediately obvious — Dart’s radio signal abruptly ceased — it will take days or even weeks to determine how much the asteroid’s path has changed.

The $325 million mission was the first attempt to shift the position of an asteroid or any other natural object in space.

“We’re embarking on a new era of humankind,” said NASA’s Lori Glaze, planetary science division director.

Earlier in the day, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson reminded people via Twitter that, “No, this is not a movie plot.” He added in a prerecorded video: “We’ve all seen it on movies like ‘Armageddon,’ but the real-life stakes are high.”

Monday’s target: a 160-meter asteroid named Dimorphos. It’s actually a moonlet of Didymos, Greek for twin, a fast-spinning asteroid five times bigger that flung off the material that formed the junior partner.

The pair have been orbiting the sun for eons without threatening Earth, making them ideal save-the-world test candidates.

Launched last November, the vending machine-size Dart — short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test — navigated to its target using new technology developed by Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, the spacecraft builder and mission manager.

Dart’s onboard camera, a key part of this smart navigation system, caught sight of Dimorphos barely an hour before impact.

“Woo-hoo!” exclaimed Adams, a mission systems engineer at Johns Hopkins. “We’re seeing Dimorphos, so wonderful, wonderful.”

With an image beaming back to Earth every second, Adams and other ground controllers in Laurel, Maryland, watched with growing excitement as Dimorphos loomed larger and larger in the field of view alongside its bigger companion. Within minutes, Dimorphos was alone in the pictures; it looked like a giant gray lemon with boulders and rubble on the surface. The last image froze on the screen as the radio transmission ended.

Flight controllers cheered, hugged one another and exchanged high fives.

A mini satellite followed a few minutes behind to take photos of the impact. The Italian Cubesat was released from Dart two weeks ago.

Scientists insisted Dart would not shatter Dimorphos. The spacecraft packed a scant 570 kilograms, compared with the asteroid’s 5 billion kilograms. But that should be plenty to shrink its 11-hour, 55-minute orbit around Didymos.

The impact should pare 10 minutes off that, but telescopes will need anywhere from a few days to nearly a month to verify the new orbit. The anticipated orbital shift of 1% might not sound like much, scientists noted. But they stressed that over years, it would amount to a significant change.

Planetary defense experts prefer nudging a threatening asteroid or comet out of the way, given enough lead time, rather than blowing it up and creating multiple pieces that could rain down on Earth. Multiple impactors might be needed for big space rocks or a combination of impactors and so-called gravity tractors, not-yet-invented devices that would use their own gravity to pull an asteroid into a safer orbit.

“The dinosaurs didn’t have a space program to help them know what was coming, but we do,” NASA’s senior climate adviser Katherine Calvin said, referring to the mass extinction 66 million years ago believed to have been caused by a major asteroid impact, volcanic eruptions or both.

The nonprofit B612 Foundation, dedicated to protecting Earth from asteroid strikes, has been pushing for impact tests like Dart since its founding by astronauts and physicists 20 years ago. Monday’s feat aside, the world must do a better job of identifying the countless space rocks lurking out there, warned the foundation’s executive director, Ed Lu, a former astronaut.

Significantly less than half of the estimated 25,000 near-Earth objects in the deadly 140-meter range have been discovered, according to NASA. And fewer than 1% of the millions of smaller asteroids, capable of widespread injuries, are known.

The Vera Rubin Observatory, nearing completion in Chile by the National Science Foundation and U.S. Energy Department, promises to revolutionize the field of asteroid discovery, Lu noted.

Finding and tracking asteroids, “That’s still the name of the game here. That’s the thing that has to happen in order to protect the Earth,” he said.

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NASA’s Asteroid-Deflecting DART Spacecraft Nears Planned Impact With Target 

Ten months after launch, NASA’s asteroid-deflecting DART spacecraft neared a planned impact with its target on Monday in a test of the world’s first planetary defense system, designed to prevent a doomsday collision with Earth.

The cube-shaped “impactor” vehicle, roughly the size of a vending machine with two rectangular solar arrays, was on course to fly into the asteroid Dimorphos, about as large as a football stadium, and self-destruct around 7 p.m. EDT (2300 GMT) some 11 million kilometers from Earth.

The mission’s finale will test the ability of a spacecraft to alter an asteroid’s trajectory with sheer kinetic force, plowing into the object at high speed to nudge it astray just enough to keep our planet out of harm’s way.

It marks the world’s first attempt to change the motion of an asteroid, or any celestial body.

DART, launched by a SpaceX rocket in November 2021, has made most of its voyage under the guidance of NASA’s flight directors, with control to be handed over to an autonomous on-board navigation system in the final hours of the journey.

Monday evening’s planned impact is to be monitored in real time from the mission operations center at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.

DART’s celestial target is an asteroid “moonlet” about 170 meters in diameter that orbits a parent asteroid five times larger called Didymos as part of a binary pair with the same name, the Greek word for twin.

Neither object presents any actual threat to Earth, and NASA scientists said their DART test cannot create a new existential hazard by mistake.

Dimorphos and Didymos are both tiny compared with the cataclysmic Chicxulub asteroid that struck Earth some 66 million years ago, wiping out about three-quarters of the world’s plant and animal species including the dinosaurs.

Smaller asteroids are far more common and pose a greater theoretical concern in the near term, making the Didymos pair suitable test subjects for their size, according to NASA scientists and planetary defense experts.

Also, their relative proximity to Earth and dual-asteroid configuration make them ideal for the first proof-of-concept mission of DART, short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test.

Robotic suicide mission

The mission represents a rare instance in which a NASA spacecraft must ultimately crash to succeed.

The plan is for DART to fly directly into Dimorphos at 24,000 kilometers per hour, bumping it hard enough to shift its orbital track closer to its larger companion asteroid.

Cameras on the impactor and on a briefcase-sized mini-spacecraft released from DART days in advance are designed to record the collision and send images back to Earth.

DART’s own camera is expected to return pictures at the rate of one image per second during its final approach, with those images streaming live on NASA TV starting an hour before impact, according to APL.

The DART team said it expects to shorten the orbital track of Dimorphos by 10 minutes but would consider at least 73 seconds a success, proving the exercise as a viable technique to deflect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth — if one were ever discovered. A small nudge to an asteroid millions of miles away could be sufficient to safely reroute it away from the planet.

The test’s outcome will not be known until a new round of ground-based telescope observations of the two asteroids in October. Earlier calculations of the starting location and orbital period of Dimorphos were confirmed during a six-day observation period in July.

DART is the latest of several NASA missions in recent years to explore and interact with asteroids, primordial rocky remnants from the solar system’s formation more than 4.5 billion years ago.

Last year, NASA launched a probe on a voyage to the Trojan asteroid clusters orbiting near Jupiter, while the grab-and-go spacecraft OSIRIS-REx is on its way back to Earth with a sample collected in October 2020 from the asteroid Bennu.

The Dimorphos moonlet is one of the smallest astronomical objects to receive a permanent name and is one of 27,500 known near-Earth asteroids of all sizes tracked by NASA. Although none are known to pose a foreseeable hazard to humankind, NASA estimates that many more asteroids remain undetected in the near-Earth vicinity.

NASA has put the entire cost of the DART project at $330 million, well below that of many of the space agency’s most ambitious science missions.

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Musk Faces Deposition With Twitter Ahead of October Trial

Tesla CEO Elon Musk is scheduled to spend the next few days with lawyers for Twitter, answering questions ahead of an October trial that will determine whether he must carry through with his $44 billion agreement to acquire the social platform after attempting to back out of the deal.

The deposition, planned for Monday, Tuesday and a possible extension on Wednesday, will not be public. As of Sunday evening, it was not clear whether Musk will appear in person or by video. The trial is set to begin October 17 in Delaware Chancery Court, where it’s scheduled to last just five days.

Musk, the world’s richest man, agreed in April to buy Twitter and take it private, offering $54.20 a share and vowing to loosen the company’s policing of content and to root out fake accounts. Twitter shares closed Friday at $41.58.

Musk indicated in July that he wanted to back away from the deal, prompting Twitter to file a lawsuit to force him to carry through with the acquisition.

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Uganda Says Ebola Caseload Rises to 16 as Outbreak Grows

Uganda said on Sunday its Ebola caseload had jumped to 16 people while a further 18 people also likely had the disease, fueling fears of a spreading outbreak that involves a strain for which a vaccine has not yet been found.

In a tweet, the Ministry of Health also said the death toll of confirmed cases remained four while 17 others classified as probable cases had also died. The outbreak had also now spread to three districts, all in central Uganda.

The east African country last week announced the outbreak of Ebola, a hemorrhagic fever whose symptoms include intense body weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat, vomiting, diarrhea and rashes among others.

The current outbreak, attributed to the Ebola Sudan strain, appears to have started in a small village in Mubende district around the beginning of September, authorities have said.

The first casualty was a 24-year old man who died earlier this week.

The World Health Organization says the Ebola Sudan strain is less transmissible and has shown a lower fatality rate in previous outbreaks than Ebola Zaire, a strain that killed nearly 2,300 people in the 2018-2020 epidemic in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.

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Why is a NASA Spacecraft Crashing Into an Asteroid?

In the first-of-its kind, save-the-world experiment, NASA is about to clobber a small, harmless asteroid millions of miles away.

A spacecraft named Dart will zero in on the asteroid Monday, intent on slamming it head-on at 14,000 mph (22,500 kph). The impact should be just enough to nudge the asteroid into a slightly tighter orbit around its companion space rock — demonstrating that if a killer asteroid ever heads our way, we’d stand a fighting chance of diverting it.

“This is stuff of science-fiction books and really corny episodes of “StarTrek” from when I was a kid, and now it’s real,” NASA program scientist Tom Statler said Thursday.

Cameras and telescopes will watch the crash, but it will take days or even weeks to find out if it actually changed the orbit.

The $325 million planetary defense test began with Dart’s launch last fall.

Asteroid target

The asteroid with the bull’s-eye on it is Dimorphos, about 7 million miles (9.6 million kilometers) from Earth. It is actually the puny sidekick of a 2,500-foot (780-meter) asteroid named Didymos, Greek for twin. Discovered in 1996, Didymos is spinning so fast that scientists believe it flung off material that eventually formed a moonlet. Dimorphos — roughly 525 feet (160 meters) across — orbits its parent body at a distance of less than a mile (1.2 kilometers).

“This really is about asteroid deflection, not disruption,” said Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist and mission team leader at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, which is managing the effort. “This isn’t going to blow up the asteroid. It isn’t going to put it into lots of pieces.” Rather, the impact will dig out a crater tens of yards (meters) in size and hurl some 2 million pounds (1 million kilograms) of rocks and dirt into space.

NASA insists there’s a zero chance either asteroid will threaten Earth — now or in the future. That’s why the pair was picked.

Dart, the impactor

The Johns Hopkins lab took a minimalist approach in developing Dart — short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test — given that it’s essentially a battering ram and faces sure destruction. It has a single instrument: a camera used for navigating, targeting and chronicling the final action. Believed to be essentially a rubble pile, Dimorphos will emerge as a point of light an hour before impact, looming larger and larger in the camera images beamed back to Earth. Managers are confident Dart won’t smash into the larger Didymos by mistake. The spacecraft’s navigation is designed to distinguish between the two asteroids and, in the final 50 minutes, target the smaller one.

The size of a small vending machine at 1,260 pounds (570 kilograms), the spacecraft will slam into roughly 11 billion pounds (5 billion kilograms) of asteroid. “Sometimes we describe it as running a golf cart into a Great Pyramid,” said Chabot.

Unless Dart misses — NASA puts the odds of that happening at less than 10% — it will be the end of the road for Dart. If it goes screaming past both space rocks, it will encounter them again in a couple years for Take 2.

Saving earth

Little Dimorphos completes a lap around big Didymos every 11 hours and 55 minutes. The impact by Dart should shave about 10 minutes off that. Although the strike itself should be immediately apparent, it could take a few weeks or more to verify the moonlet’s tweaked orbit. Cameras on Dart and a mini tagalong satellite will capture the collision up close. Telescopes on all seven continents, along with the Hubble and Webb space telescopes and NASA’s asteroid-hunting Lucy spacecraft, may see a bright flash as Dart smacks Dimorphos and sends streams of rock and dirt cascading into space. The observatories will track the pair of asteroids as they circle the sun, to see if Dart altered Dimorphos’ orbit. In 2024, a European spacecraft named Hera will retrace Dart’s journey to measure the impact results.

Although the intended nudge should change the moonlet’s position only slightly, that will add up to a major shift over time, according to Chabot. “So if you were going to do this for planetary defense, you would do it five, 10, 15, 20 years in advance in order for this technique to work,” she said. Even if Dart misses, the experiment still will provide valuable insight, said NASA program executive Andrea Riley. “This is why we test. We want to do it now rather than when there’s an actual need,” she said.

Asteroid missions galore

Planet Earth is on an asteroid-chasing roll. NASA has close to a pound (450 grams) of rubble collected from asteroid Bennu headed to Earth. The stash should arrive next September. Japan was the first to retrieve asteroid samples, accomplishing the feat twice. China hopes to follow suit with a mission launching in 2025. NASA’s Lucy spacecraft, meanwhile, is headed to asteroids near Jupiter, after launching last year. Another spacecraft, Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, is loaded into NASA’s new moon rocket awaiting liftoff; it will use a solar sail to fly past a space rock that’s less than 60 feet (18 meters) next year. In the next few years, NASA also plans to launch a census-taking telescope to identify hard-to-find asteroids that could pose risks. One asteroid mission is grounded while an independent review board weighs its future. NASA’s Psyche spacecraft should have launched this year to a metal-rich asteroid between Mars and Jupiter, but the team couldn’t test the flight software in time.

Hollywood’s take

Hollywood has churned out dozens of killer-space-rock movies over the decades, including 1998′s “Armageddon” which brought Bruce Willis to Cape Canaveral for filming, and last year’s “Don’t Look Up” with Leonardo DiCaprio leading an all-star cast. NASA’s planetary defense officer, Lindley Johnson, figures he’s seen them all since 1979′s “Meteor,” his personal favorite “since Sean Connery played me.” While some of the sci-fi films are more accurate than others, he noted, entertainment always wins out. The good news is that the coast seems clear for the next century, with no known threats. Otherwise, “it would be like the movies, right?” said NASA’s science mission chief Thomas Zurbuchen. What’s worrisome, though, are the unknown threats. Fewer than half of the 460-foot (140-meter) objects have been confirmed, with millions of smaller but still-dangerous objects zooming around. “These threats are real, and what makes this time special, is we can do something about it,” Zurbuchen said. Not by blowing up an asteroid as Willis’ character did — that would be a last, last-minute resort — or by begging government leaders to take action as DiCaprio’s character did in vain. If time allows, the best tactic could be to nudge the menacing asteroid out of our way, like Dart.

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NASA Scraps Tuesday Artemis Moon Launch Due to Storm

NASA has called off the scheduled Tuesday launch of its historic uncrewed mission to the moon due to a tropical storm that is forecast to strengthen as it approaches Florida.

After two previously canceled launch attempts, NASA is weighing returning the Artemis 1 mission rocket to its assembly site under the threat of extreme weather.

“NASA is forgoing a launch opportunity… and preparing for rollback (from the launchpad), while continuing to watch the weather forecast associated with Tropical Storm Ian,” it said Saturday.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said Ian is due to “rapidly intensify” over the weekend as it moves toward Florida, home to the Kennedy Space Center, from which the rocket is set to launch.

Currently south of Jamaica, the storm is expected to approach Florida’s west coast “at or near major hurricane strength” early next week, threatening storm surge, flooding and hurricane-force winds across much of the state, the NHC said.

On the launchpad, the giant orange and white Space Launch System (SLS) rocket can withstand wind gusts of up to 137 kilometers (85 miles) per hour. But if it has to be sheltered, the current launch window, which runs until October 4, will be missed.

A decision on whether to roll back the rocket to the Vehicle Assembly Building is due to be taken by the Artemis 1 team Sunday, “to allow for additional data gathering and analysis,” with the operation, if necessary, starting late Sunday or Monday morning, NASA said.

Jim Free, associate administrator for the agency’s exploration systems development directorate, said on Twitter that a “step-wise approach” to the decision to roll back preserves “a launch opportunity if conditions improve,” indicating a launch date before October 5 was still on the table.

If not, the next launch window will run from October 17 to 31, with one possibility of takeoff per day, except from October 24-26 and 28.

The Artemis 1 space mission hopes to test the SLS as well as the unmanned Orion capsule that sits atop it, in preparation for future Moon-bound journeys with humans aboard.

Artemis is named after the twin sister of the Greek god Apollo, after whom the first moon missions were named.

Unlike the Apollo missions, which sent only white men to the moon between 1969 and 1972, Artemis missions will see the first person of color and the first woman step foot on the lunar surface.

A successful Artemis 1 mission would come as a huge relief to the U.S. space agency, after years of delays and cost overruns.  

But another setback would be a blow to NASA, after two previous launch attempts were scrapped when the rocket experienced technical glitches including a fuel leak.

The cost of the Artemis program is estimated to reach $93 billion by 2025, with its first four missions clocking in at a whopping $4.1 billion each, according to a government audit.

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4.4M Americans Roll Up Sleeves for Omicron-Targeted Boosters

U.S. health officials say 4.4 million Americans have received the updated COVID-19 booster shot. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted the count Thursday as public health experts bemoaned President Joe Biden’s recent remark that “the pandemic is over.” 

The White House said more than 5 million people had received the new boosters by its own estimate, which accounts for reporting lags in states. 

Health experts said it was too early to predict whether demand would match up with the 171 million doses of the new boosters the U.S. ordered for the fall. 

“No one would go looking at our flu shot uptake at this point and be like, ‘Oh, what a disaster,’ ” said Dr. David Dowdy, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “If we start to see a large uptick in cases, I think we’re going to see a lot of people getting the [new COVID] vaccine.” 

A temporary shortage of Moderna vaccine caused some pharmacies to cancel appointments while encouraging people to reschedule for a Pfizer vaccine. The issue was expected to resolve as government regulators wrapped up an inspection and cleared batches of vaccine doses for distribution. 

“I do expect this to pick up in the weeks ahead,” said White House COVID-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha. “We’ve been thinking and talking about this as an annual vaccine like the flu vaccine. Flu vaccine season picks up in late September and early October. We’re just getting our education campaign going. So, we expect to see, despite the fact that this was a strong start, we actually expect this to ramp up stronger.” 

Some Americans who plan to get the shot, designed to target the most common omicron strains, said they were waiting because they either had COVID-19 recently or another booster. They are following public health advice to wait several months to get the full benefit of their existing virus-fighting antibodies. 

Others are scheduling shots closer to holiday gatherings and winter months when respiratory viruses spread more easily. 

Retired hospital chaplain Jeanie Murphy, 69, of Shawnee, Kansas, plans to get the new booster in a couple of weeks after she has some minor knee surgery. Interest is high among her neighbors, she said. 

“There’s quite a bit of discussion happening among people who are ready to make appointments,” Murphy said. “I found that encouraging.”

Steady state 

Biden later acknowledged criticism of his remark about the pandemic being over and clarified the pandemic is “not where it was.” The initial comment didn’t bother Murphy. She believes the disease has entered a steady state when “we’ll get COVID shots in the fall the same as we do flu shots.” 

Experts hope she’s right but are waiting to see what levels of infection winter brings. The summer ebb in case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths may be followed by another surge, Dowdy said. 

Some Americans who got the new shots said they were excited about the idea of targeting the vaccine to the variants circulating now. 

“Give me all the science you can,” said Jeff Westling, 30, an attorney in Washington, who got the new booster and a flu shot Tuesday, one in each arm. He participates in the combat sport jujitsu, so he wants to protect himself from infections that may come with close contact.  

Meanwhile, Biden’s pronouncement in a 60 Minutes interview broadcast Sunday echoed through social media. 

By Wednesday on Facebook, when a Kansas health department posted where residents could find the new booster shots, the first commenter remarked: “But Biden says the pandemic is over.” 

The president’s statement, despite his attempts to clarify it, adds to public confusion, said Josh Michaud, associate director of global health policy with the Kaiser Family Foundation in Washington. 

“People aren’t sure when is the right time to get boosted. ‘Am I eligible?’ People are often confused about what the right choice is for them, even where to search for that information,” Michaud said. 

“Any time you have mixed messages, it’s detrimental to the public health effort,” Michaud said. “Having the mixed messages from the president’s remarks makes that job that much harder.” 

University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi said he’s worried the president’s pronouncement has taken on a life of its own and may stall prevention efforts. 

“That soundbite is there for a while now, and it’s going to spread like wildfire. And it’s going to give the impression that ‘Oh, there’s nothing more we need to do,’ ” Salemi said. 

“If we’re happy with 400 or 500 people dying every single day from COVID, there’s a problem with that,” Salemi said. “We can absolutely do better because most of those deaths, if not all of them, are absolutely preventable with the tools that we have.”

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Dow Hits 2022 Low as Markets Sell Off on Recession Fears

Markets sold off around the world on mounting signs the global economy is weakening just as central banks raise the pressure even more with additional hikes of interest rates. 

The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed Friday at its lowest point of the year. The S&P 500 fell 1.7%, close to its 2022 low.  

Energy prices also closed sharply lower as traders worried about a possible recession. Treasury yields, which affect rates on mortgages and other kinds of loans, remained at multiyear highs. British government bond yields snapped higher after that country’s new government announced a sweeping plan of tax cuts. 

European stocks fell just as sharply or more after preliminary data there suggested business activity had its worst monthly contraction since the start of 2021. Adding to the pressure was a new plan announced in London to cut taxes, which sent U.K. yields soaring because it could ultimately force its central bank to raise rates even more sharply.

The Federal Reserve and other central banks around the world aggressively hiked interest rates this week in hopes of undercutting high inflation, with more big increases promised for the future. But such moves also put the brakes on their economies, threatening recessions as growth slows worldwide. Besides Friday’s discouraging data on European business activity, a separate report suggested U.S. activity is also still shrinking, though not quite as badly as in earlier months.  

“Financial markets are now fully absorbing the Fed’s harsh message that there will be no retreat from the inflation fight,” Douglas Porter, chief economist at BMO Capital Markets, wrote in a research report. 

Crude oil prices tumbled to their lowest levels since early this year on worries that a weaker global economy will burn less fuel. Cryptocurrency prices also fell sharply because higher interest rates tend to hit hardest the investments that look the priciest or the most risky. 

Even gold fell in the worldwide rout, as bonds paying higher yields make investments that pay no interest look less attractive. 

 

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 505 points, or 1.7%, to 29,572 and the Nasdaq fell 1.9% as of 3:43 p.m. Eastern. Smaller company stocks did even worse. The Russell 2000 fell 3%. U.S. crude oil prices slid 5.7% and weighed heavily on energy stocks. 

More than 90% of stocks in the S&P 500 were in the red, with technology companies, retailers and banks among the biggest weights on the benchmark index. The major indexes are on pace for their fifth weekly loss in six weeks. 

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday lifted its benchmark rate, which affects many consumer and business loans, to a range of 3% to 3.25%. It was at virtually zero at the start of the year. The Fed also released a forecast suggesting its benchmark rate could be 4.4% by the year’s end, a full point higher than envisioned in June. 

Treasury yields have climbed to multiyear highs as interest rates rise. The yield on the 2-year Treasury, which tends to follow expectations for Federal Reserve action, rose to 4.19% from 4.12% late Thursday. It is trading at its highest level since 2007. The yield on the 10-year Treasury, which influences mortgage rates, slipped to 3.68% from 3.71%. 

The higher rates mean Goldman Sachs strategists say a majority of their clients now see a “hard landing” that pulls the economy sharply lower as inevitable. The question for them is on the timing, magnitude and length of a potential recession. 

In the U.S., the jobs market has remained remarkably solid, and many analysts think the economy grew in the summer quarter after shrinking in the first six months of the year. But the encouraging signs also suggest the Fed may have to raise rates even higher to get the cooling needed to bring down inflation. 

Some key areas of the economy are already weakening. Mortgage rates have reached 14-year highs, causing sales of existing homes to drop 20% in the past year. But other areas that do best when rates are low are also hurting. 

In Europe, meanwhile, the already fragile economy is dealing with the effects of war on its eastern front following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The European Central Bank is hiking its key interest rate to combat inflation even as the region’s economy is already expected to plunge into a recession. And in Asia, China’s economy is contending with still-strict measures meant to limit COVID infections that also hurt businesses. 

 

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Study: Asian Coastal Cities Sinking at Fastest Rate

Sprawling coastal cities in South and Southeast Asia are sinking faster than elsewhere in the world, leaving tens of millions of people more vulnerable to rising sea levels, a new study says. 

Rapid urbanization has seen these cities draw heavily on groundwater to service their burgeoning populations, according to research by Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, published in the journal Nature Sustainability last week.  

“This puts cities experiencing rapid local land subsidence at greater risk of coastal hazards than already present due to climate-driven sea-level rise,” the study says. 

Vietnam’s most populous urban center and main business hub, Ho Chi Minh City, was sinking an average of 16.2 millimeters (0.6 inches) annually, topping the study’s survey of satellite data from 48 large coastal cities around the world. 

The southern Bangladeshi port of Chittagong was second on the list, with the western Indian city Ahmedabad, Indonesian capital Jakarta and Myanmar’s commercial hub Yangon also sinking more than 20 millimeters in peak years.  

“Many of these fast-subsiding coastal cities are rapidly expanding megacities, where … high demands for groundwater extraction and loading from densely constructed building structures, contribute to local land subsidence,” the study says. 

Sinking cities are not of themselves a result of climate change, but researchers said their work would give a better insight into how the phenomenon would “compound the effects of climate-driven mean sea-level rise.” 

More than 1 billion people will live in coastal cities at risk of rising sea levels by 2050, according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  

The IPCC says that global sea levels could rise by up to 60 centimeters (24 inches) by the end of the century, even if greenhouse gas emissions are sharply reduced. 

 

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Inflation, Unrest Challenge Bangladesh’s ‘Miracle Economy’

Standing in line to try to buy food, Rekha Begum is distraught. Like many others in Bangladesh, she is struggling to find affordable daily essentials like rice, lentils and onions.

“I went to two other places, but they told me they don’t have supplies. Then I came here and stood at the end of the queue,” said Begum, 60, as she waited for nearly two hours to buy what she needed from a truck selling food at subsidized prices in the capital, Dhaka.

Bangladesh’s economic miracle is under severe strain as fuel price hikes amplify public frustrations over rising costs for food and other necessities. Fierce opposition criticism and small street protests have erupted in recent weeks, adding to pressures on the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, which has sought help from the International Monetary Fund to safeguard the country’s finances.

Experts say Bangladesh’s predicament is nowhere nearly as severe as Sri Lanka’s, where months’ long unrest led its long-time president to flee the country and people are enduring outright shortages of food, fuel and medicines, spending days in queues for essentials. But it faces similar troubles: excessive spending on ambitious development projects, public anger over corruption and cronyism and a weakening trade balance.

Such trends are undermining Bangladesh’s impressive progress, fueled largely by its success as a garment manufacturing hub, toward becoming a more affluent, middle-income country.

The government raised fuel prices by more than 50% last month to counter soaring costs due to high oil prices, triggering protests over the rising cost of living. That led authorities to order the subsidized sales of rice and other staples by government-appointed dealers.

The latest phase of the program, which began Sept. 1, should help about 50 million people, said Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi.

“The government has taken a number of measures to reduce pressures on low-income earners. That is impacting the market and keeping prices of daily commodities competitive,” he said.

The policies are a stopgap for bigger global and domestic challenges.

The war in Ukraine has pushed higher prices of many commodities at a time when they already were surging as demand recovered with a waning of the coronavirus pandemic. In the meantime, countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Laos — among many — have seen their currencies weaken against the dollar, adding to the costs for dollar-denominated imports of oil and other goods.

To ease the strain on public finances and foreign reserves, the authorities put a moratorium on big, new projects, cut office hours to save energy and imposed limits on imports of luxury goods and non-essential items, such as sedans and SUVs.

“The Bangladesh economy is facing strong headwinds and turbulence,” said Ahmad Ahsan, an economist and director of the Dhaka-based Policy Research Institute, a think tank. “Suddenly we are back to the era of rolling power cuts, with the taka and the forex reserves under pressure,” he said.

Millions of low-income Bangladeshis, like Begum, whose family of five can barely afford to eat fish or meat even once a month, still struggle to put food on the table.

Bangladesh has made huge strides in the past two decades in growing its economy and fighting poverty. Investments in garment manufacturing have provided jobs for tens of millions of workers, mostly women. Exports of apparel and related products account for more than 80% of its exports.

But with fuel costs so high, authorities shut diesel-run power plants that produced at least 6% of total production, cutting daily power generation by 1,500 megawatts and disrupting manufacturing.

Imports in the last fiscal year, ending in June, 2022, rose to $84 billion, while exports have fluctuated, leaving a record current account deficit of $17 billion.

More challenges are ahead.

Deadlines are fast approaching for repaying foreign loans related to at least 20 mega infrastructure projects, including the $3.6 billion River Padma bridge built by China and a nuclear power plant mostly funded by Russia. Experts say Bangladesh needs to prepare for when repayment schedules ramp up between 2024 and 2026.

In July, in a move economists view as a precautionary measure, Bangladesh sought a $4.5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, becoming the third country in South Asia to recently seek its help after Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

Finance Minister A.H.M. Mustafa Kamal said that the government asked the IMF to begin formal negotiations on loans “for balance of payments and budgetary assistance.” The IMF said it was working with Bangladesh to draw up a plan.

Bangladesh’s foreign reserves have been falling, potentially undermining its ability to meet its loan obligations. By Wednesday they had dropped to $36.9 billion from $45.5 billion a year earlier, according to the central bank.

Usable foreign reserves would be about $30 billion, said Zahid Hussain, a former chief economist of the World Bank’s Dhaka office.

“I would not say this is a crisis situation. This is still enough to meet three months of imports, three and half months of imports. But it also means that … you do not have a lot of room for maneuvering on the reserve front,” he said.

Still, despite what some economists say is excessive spending on some costly projects, Bangladesh is better equipped to weather hard times than some other countries in the region.

Its farm sector — tea, rice and jute are major exports — is an effective “shock absorber,” and its economy, four to five times larger than Sri Lanka’s, is less vulnerable to outside calamities like a downturn in tourism.

The economy is forecast to grow at a 6.6% pace this fiscal year, according to the Asia Development Bank’s latest forecast, and the country’s total debt is still relatively small.

“I think in the current context, the most important difference between Sri Lanka and Bangladesh is the debt burden, particularly the external debt,” said Hussain.

Bangladesh’s external debt is under 20% of its gross domestic product, while Sri Lanka’s was around 126% in the first quarter of 2022.

“So, we have some space. I mean debt as a source of stress on the macroeconomy is not much of a much problem yet,” he said.

Waiting in a line to buy subsidized food, 48-year-old Mohammed Jamal said he was not feeling such leeway for his own family.

“It has become unbearable trying to maintain our standard of living,” Jamal said. “Prices are just out of reach for the common people,” he said. “It’s tough living this way.”

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VOA Interview: Anne Neuberger

With Russian President Vladimir Putin accelerating war efforts and threatening to use nuclear weapons, White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara spoke with Anne Neuberger, deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology at the Biden administration’s National Security Council, on the possibility of increased cyber warfare on Ukraine and her allies. Neuberger also spoke of the recent Iranian cyberattacks on Albania, and the administration’s view of NATO’s collective defense principle in cyber warfare.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

VOA: Anne Nueberger, thank you so much for joining me all today. I’m going to start with Russia. President Vladimir Putin has significantly increased his war efforts. He’s announced mobilization, referendums, threatening nuclear attacks. Are we also expecting an increase in cyberattacks?

DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER FOR CYBER AND EMERGING TECHNOLOGY ANNE NEUBERGER: So first, thank you so much for having me here. It’s really great to be here. Throughout the conflict, beginning when Russia first did its further invasion of Ukraine, we’ve seen Russia use destructive cyberattacks as well as intelligence collection to advance its war mission. We saw the initial destructive attacks on satellite systems, then later on Ukrainian government systems and additional critical infrastructures systems. So one would expect that as Russia further redouble its efforts, that will include cyberattacks as well.

VOA: Have you actually seen indications of it starting?

NEUBERGER: Of additional cyberattacks?

VOA: Of cyberattacks, yes.

NEUBERGER: It’s been a consistent part of Russia’s war effort in Ukraine. So it’s something we expect. Do we have particular indications of an increase in that way at this time? We don’t.

VOA: How are you helping the Ukrainians defend themselves?

NEUBERGER: Such a great question. So beginning back when Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2015-16 and conducted disruptive cyberattacks against Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, we began to work with Ukraine to really strengthen the resilience of its critical infrastructure. That partnership continued up through the months as we were concerned about heightened war activity, and that included work on cybersecurity resilience of critical infrastructure, included our sending in a team from the U.S. Cyber Command, again to work on cybersecurity, teams from the Department of Energy working closely to improve resilience, and ongoing information sharing regarding tactics and techniques used to conduct malicious cyberattacks. So that remains an ongoing partnership all the way from resilience efforts to practical information sharing to help defense systems.

VOA: Are you also working in terms of strengthening their counterattack systems?

NEUBERGER: We’re very focused on cybersecurity resilience systems.

VOA: In that sense, whether it’s a terrorist offense or counterattacks, we’re hearing a lot about this volunteer hackers called the Ukrainian IT army, and I want to hear what your sense of how good and how successful they have been in deterring or thwarting or even stopping Russian attacks. And what kind of support is the administration providing them?

NEUBERGER: We’ve seen quite a bit of volunteer hacking activity with regard to Ukrainian activity to defend accounts. I don’t think we have really good insights in terms of understanding what’s Ukrainian government versus volunteer hacking activity. And, of course, our assistance is government to government. With regard to, as I mentioned earlier, some of the cybersecurity activities assisting the Ukrainian government to build and strengthen its resilience and its defense.

VOA: So just to be clear, your support and your interaction is with the Zelenskyy government, not with groups outside who are also supporting them, like the Ukrainian IT army.

NEUBERGER: Yes, our support is really, along with all of our security systems, government to government.

VOA: You mentioned earlier that, you know, the Russian attack has been consistent. And we also heard that there’s been warnings of major Russian cyberattacks on Ukrainian infrastructure – critical infrastructure. At the beginning or before the start of the war, we heard warnings that that’s how the war is going to start. I’m not quite sure that actually did happen. And in fact, throughout the war, we haven’t really heard any kind of major cyberattack that’s actually crippling Ukrainian critical infrastructure. Is that the case or are we just not hearing about it? What are your thoughts on this?

NEUBERGER: It’s a good question. So first, as Russia began its further invasion of Ukraine, we did see Russia conduct a destructive attack on Ukrainian communication systems, satellite communications systems, the ground parts, as well as on Ukrainian government websites and government systems. That initial attack, the Ukrainians were able to quickly recover and bring back up those systems. The U.S. government, because there was a ripple effect across Europe from their first Russian destructive attack on communication systems, the U.S. government and the European Union called out that activity and said this is irresponsible activity, but the Ukrainian government was able to quickly recover those websites and quickly recover from those destructive attacks, which is really a tribute to all the cybersecurity resilience and focus they put on improving the security of their systems, disconnecting their energy grid from the Russian grid, reconnecting to the European grid and the work they had done to really harden that. So that preparedness and frankly that partnership between various countries assisting the Ukrainians on that work, although the Ukrainians really led that work, was key to their defense. There have been ongoing Russian cyberattacks. The Ukrainians have been very successful at, you know, catching those, and really remediating and addressing them quickly so that they didn’t have significant impact.

VOA: Is the support given to them, government to government, U.S. to Ukraine, or is it also through NATO?

NEUBERGER: The support is from individual governments, the U.S. government, the European individual governments are providing various cybersecurity assistance.

VOA: OK, on the flipside, what do we know about the Russian cyber operations support? I mean to what extent is Russia getting support from other countries? Do we see a strategic alignment in terms of cyber warfare between Russia, China, North Korea, Iran?

NEUBERGER: Russia has a very capable cyber program and one of our focus areas both for the U.S. and for the Europeans has been to really improve our own preparedness, to ensure we lock our doors, lock our digital windows so that we can prepare in case there are heightened Russian cyberattacks as well. So it’s clearly been a focus for us on the U.S. side.

VOA: Have we seen so far that there are strategic alignments or at least tactical alignments between these adversaries in cyber warfare?

NEUBERGER: In the cyber context, no, we haven’t.

VOA: The war in Ukraine is the first conflict where we see some sort of coordination between cyberattacks and kinetic military assault. So in that sense, what are we learning about this hybrid warfare and what are we learning about the Russian capabilities in that realm?

NEUBERGER: I think we’re fundamentally learning that as countries think about their national defense for crisis or conflict, the digital systems they operate at, whether they’re individuals, whether they’re companies, whether they’re governments … need as much to be defended, and the preparation work to understand what are the most important components of your power systems, your water systems, your oil and gas pipelines, and ensuring that they’re up to snuff. The cybersecurity is capable to defend against a capable adversary. And that’s the core message. That doesn’t happen in a moment because these elements of critical infrastructure were digitized in many countries without necessarily considering security baked in at the beginning. And that’s one of the reasons in the U.S. and with partners around the world we’re working to quickly improve the security of critical infrastructure, recognizing that it’s a component of adversaries work in crisis and conflict to either coerce a population, or coerce the government by potentially destabilizing or disrupting digital systems.

VOA: I want to talk some more about what the U.S. is doing in terms of building this responsible state behavior in the cyber realm, but first I just want to talk a little bit on this Iranian cyberattack on Albania. The administration has slapped fresh sanctions on Iran as punishment, yet that didn’t stop them from launching a second attack. Are we not doing enough? Is there nothing else that we can do to deter them and how are we helping the Albanians?

NEUBERGER: It’s such an interesting question. So cyber deterrence is a very new field, and it draws on lessons and the approach we’ve used in other domains, sea, air. How do we build coalitions among countries regarding what’s responsible state behavior in cyberspace and what’s irresponsible because it’s one global commons at the end of the day. Many countries signed up for the United Nations voluntary norms for peacetime, which include a number of norms, and that was signed in both 2015 and 2019. One of those includes not disrupting critical services. And as such, in order to make forms actually be enforced, it requires countries and as big of a coalition as possible to call out behavior that’s not in alignment with those norms, and when possible to impose consequences. So that’s the reason that when we saw the Iranian government’s attack on the Albanian government, really disrupting Albanian government services for quite a period of time to their citizens, we and other countries came together to call out that activity, to say to the Iranians – to attribute it to the Iranians, and then to impose consequences. The Albanian government imposed consequences, we, the U.S., sanctioned the chief and deputy of an Iranian entity as well. And we do that as part of building cyber deterrence. It won’t happen in one or two cases. It happens if repeatedly, quickly, we did this far more quickly than in the past. Also, to achieve those strategic goals of enforcing international cyber norms. But if we do this repeatedly, as a community of countries, we believe that can build cyber deterrence.

VOA: The fact of the matter is, as you’re trying to build these international cyber regimes, there is no consensus at the U.N. Security Council, obviously Russia and China are a part of it. There are U.N. frameworks that cannot be enforced. So under these circumstances, how do you move forward?

NEUBERGER: So Russia is one of the countries who signed the 2015/2019 Governmental Group of Experts norms. So countries that have agreed to those norms, the key we believe is enforcing those norms. And we believe, as I mentioned, that it’s each time, time by time, pointing to countries when they conduct behavior that’s not aligned with those norms, and then continuing to deepen that coalition so that more countries join it, we do it more quickly, and then we eventually mature to also impose consequences. So we believe it will take some time, but those are the steady steps we’re taking along with partners and allies.

VOA: And so that is behind the strategy of this name and shame that you’re applying?

NEUBERGER: It’s part of a broader strategic effort of moving to where we say, in this global shared space, that is cyberspace, where we need collective defense. One key aspect is, as you noted, improving cybersecurity resilience, locking our digital doors, one key aspect is gaining agreement among countries of what is not appropriate behavior – the framework for responsible state behavior in cyberspace and gaining agreement among more countries to enforce those.

VOA: Beyond your Western allies, is there an understanding of the need to do this from, you know, the rest of the world?

NEUBERGER: We believe so, because in many ways, the weaker countries are the ones who are most vulnerable to being coerced via cyberattacks on their government systems, cyberattacks on companies or theft of intellectual property in that way. So we believe it’s in all countries’ interests, whether large or small, because we’ve all digitized. Clearly, some of us have digitized more than others, but we’ve all digitized to where there’s risk to our citizens if critical services are disrupted or if governments are disrupted in moments of crisis.

VOA: I’m going to go back to Iran and Armenia real quick. Groups associated with Iran penetrated various systems in Armenia, including the prime minister’s emails. Are you concerned that Iran may have gained access to sensitive NATO data via this breach? I mean we also heard about Portugal recently where hundreds of NATO documents may have been stolen as well.

NEUBERGER: So clearly, good cybersecurity practices are needed among all NATO members, right? Every member of NATO has to recognize that they bring risks to the broader member if they don’t put in place adequate cybersecurity practices. That’s one of the reasons that we’ve been working very closely in the NATO context in terms of cybersecurity, and to build incident response capability at NATO to mature NATO cyber capabilities, because, as I mentioned earlier, clearly more work needs to be done. You’ve cited a couple of examples that highlight the need for it. I think there’s now a much deeper recognition at NATO and a much deeper recognition to bring allies together to have in place common thresholds of cybersecurity, for important information.

VOA: And still on NATO, as a NATO ally both Albania and Portugal are technically protected under the collective defense principle. So can you explain what the administration’s view of NATO’s principle, an attack on one is an attack on all, in terms of cyber warfare? At what point does a cyberattack merit a counterattack? Are there any criteria? Is there a red line?

NEUBERGER: So this is an area of evolving policy. It’s a very new area. You’ve seen NATO’s policy that one or more cyberattacks could rise to the level of an armed attack. Clearly, that’s a very high threshold of what that is. The work we’re doing at NATO is focused on, first, cybersecurity resilience. There’ll be a NATO Cyber Defense Pledge conference in Rome that will focus both on what are the standards that NATO members have in place for their critical systems, building an incident response capability at NATO so if an ally is attacked, there is a NATO capability that countries can come together and virtually offer support, as well as then using that as an alliance to enforce international norms, but that’s an area we’re still working to evolve.

VOA: One last question on behalf of the VOA audience who may live in countries where there’s not a lot of internet penetration. Why should they care about cybersecurity?

NEUBERGER: In each of our lives, there’s data that’s really important to us, and there is information related to our work, and our country’s economies that are important to the continued growth of our economies and jobs. So there’s easy steps we can take to ensure that our data is safe and, frankly, our families and our children are safe online as well. And that’s really the core reason: that there’s really more – there is connectivity. Countries want to be connected because of the opportunities, the jobs, the commerce that it enables, so building security in from the beginning is the best way to be safe online.

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Japan to Ease COVID Border Controls to Boost Tourism

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Thursday that Japan will abolish a series of COVID-19 border restrictions in hopes of reviving its tourism industry.

As of Oct. 11, Japan will allow individual visitors to enter the country, reinstate visa waivers and end the cap on daily arrivals. Kishida announced the long-awaited policy shift at a news conference in New York.

The changes come as Japan records the highest 28-day average of cases in the world, 3,052,150, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research Center.

Japan began allowing tourists on guided tours to enter the country in June, and tourists on nonguided tours who had booked through a registered travel agency could enter as of early September.

Japan also removed mandatory pre-arrival PCR tests for fully vaccinated travelers in September but kept the 50,000 cap on daily arrivals.

The new guidelines will open doors to an unlimited number of tourists as long as they have been vaccinated three times or submit a negative COVID-19 test ahead of their trip, Kyodo News reported.

The prime minister’s action to stimulate the Japanese economy comes after the yen declined to its lowest levels against the dollar in almost a quarter of a century.

“The currency has depreciated nearly 20% this year, sinking to 24-year lows,” Reuters reported.

In an additional attempt to stimulate the economy through tourism, the Japanese government is also implementing a nationwide travel discount program, providing incentives for foreigners to choose Japan over other tourist destinations.

Some information in this report came from Reuters.

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NASA Practices Saving the World

NASA tries to save the world. Plus, the agency inches closer to its next moon mission, and geopolitical rivals unite in space. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi brings us The Week in Space.

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New Study Says There Are 20 Quadrillion Ants on Earth

A new study released this week “conservatively” estimates there are 20 quadrillion ants on the planet Earth—or about 2.5 million ants for every person.

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Hong Kong and Germany’s University of Wuerzburg, who noted ants are some of the most successful and dominant forms of life on earth but found most estimates of their numbers to be lacking, and, essentially, educated guesses.

In the study, published this week in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they explain they compiled data on both ground and tree-dwelling ants from 489 studies, spanning “all continents, major biomes, and habitats” to arrive at what they call a “conservative” estimate of 20 quadrillion ants, representing a biomass of 12 megatons.

The researchers say this is more than the combined biomass of wild birds and mammals and is equivalent to 20% of human biomass.

In a release from the University of Hong Kong, the researchers explain that having an accurate count of the world’s ants and an understanding of their abundance patterns may help preserve ecosystems and species around the world

The study also found ants are unevenly distributed over the global land surface. As a general pattern, ants are more common in tropical regions, but their numbers vary from place to place depending on the ecosystem.

University of Hong Kong School of Biological Sciences researcher Sabine Nooten, a co-lead author on the study, said the ants perform “ecological services” such as decomposition of organic material and pest control in whichever habitat they live.

The senior author of the study, University of Hong Kong researcher Benoit Guenard, said the ant count reflects the scarcity of data on so much of the natural world. He urged governments and societies to be more proactive in getting citizens involved in helping to fill those knowledge gaps.

Some information for this report came from Reuters.

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World Health Organization Declares Malawi Trachoma-Free

Malawi has become the first country in southern Africa to eliminate trachoma, the leading infectious cause of blindness, the World Health Organization announced.

It is the fourth country in Africa to stamp out the bacterial infection, after Ghana, Gambia and Togo. The WHO said in a statement that Malawi has been known to be endemic for trachoma since the 1980s. 

The disease received due attention in 2008 following a survey conducted in support of the WHO and Sightsavers, a nongovernmental organization. 

The findings spurred the country to step up efforts against trachoma by establishing a national taskforce which implemented the WHO-recommended strategy known as SAFE to control the spread of the disease. The SAFE strategy comprises provision of surgery, antibiotics to clear the infection, facial cleanliness and environmental improvement through access to water and sanitation. 

Bright Chiwaula, country director for Sightsavers in Malawi, said besides the SAFE strategy, the achievement is also a result of several elements, including training of surgeons and the promotion of good hygiene education. 

“Another element is where we assured that we had a monitoring mechanism in place that was effective and efficient, making sure that we were able to track what was happening in the country as regards trachoma elimination,” Chiwaula said.  

Trachoma is one of a number of neglected tropical diseases, or NTDs, and is endemic in nearly half the countries in Africa.   

In a statement Wednesday, Malawi President Lazarus Chakwera paid special tribute to community health workers, many of them women, whom he said played an instrumental role in freeing millions of citizens from the misery caused by these diseases. 

Chakwera said he hopes such an achievement would be replicated in the fight against other NTDs like scabies, schistosomiasis and river blindness. 

Caroline Harper, CEO of Sightsavers, told VOA Thursday that her organization is working towards that. 

“The great news is that Malawi is very close to eliminating river blindness,” she said. “Sightsavers in Malawi are helping the ministry to do that. We are actually working in 30 countries on NTDs across the whole of Africa.” 

Harper said Sightsavers made a commitment at a global summit in Rwanda in June to invest at least $20 million in the fight against neglected tropical diseases, but added the organization is hoping to raise far more than that in the future.  

 

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